According to the headlines in the Sunday papers, scattered among the usual hysterical rantings of the Sunday media (Eskom bonuses, the ANC firing premiers and so on), was the news that Kgalema Motlanthe has been put on to the Cabinet by the ANC NEC. This has been touted for some time and has now finally happened — the best news to come out of Parliament for some time.
To call Thabo Mbeki a lame-duck President is to cast an unnecessary insult at both ducks and presidents. After many years of being a fine statesman who can perhaps be credited with much of the success of the country after the 1994 elections (Mandela being largely a figurehead), Mbeki has recently, and to all appearances, completely lost the drum beat. The beyond-comprehension dealings with Zimbabwe are just one example of his failing grip on reality, and his worrying ability to be influenced by who knows what or whom behind the scenes.
That said, Mbeki is a growing (or maybe shrinking) irrelevancy. If the sense that he has stopped giving a shit is created either by the media or simply by the knowledge that his days are numbered, then all apologies. But it does feel that way, doesn’t it?
In his stead has risen, for many people, the spectre of Jacob Zuma, with all the emotional buttons he presses. But behind him is a man who has gone largely unevaluated and underestimated. Kgalema Motlanthe is the deputy president of the ANC and seen, by many, as the de facto power behind the coming throne. If Zuma becomes ineligible to be president (an increasingly unlikely scenario), Motlanthe may very well be the next president.
I was fortunate to attend a recent appearance by Motlanthe in front of a group of business people, school kids and academics at the GIBBS business school in Johannesburg. He agreed to face this crowd solo and simply to take questions as they came up from the floor. My expectation was a group of whingeing whities challenging him to defend Zuma or acknowledge the extent to which South Africa’s future was forfeit thanks to his party.
To a limited extent, these were the kinds of questions posed. However, almost from the moment he started speaking a palpable sense of something settled over the room. By the end of the evening I realised it was a sense of relief, and even hope. That a humble, intelligent and open politician was present this close to the new power structures in the ANC was greeted with something like shock. To many just a name, Motlanthe in that short evening got to the point where his worst nightmare audience was openly congratulating him and wishing him on to the Cabinet as soon as possible.
Like all politicians, Motlanthe has question marks against his name. He is an ardent socialist, which sticks in many people’s teeth. He has been named in some of the more public corruption allegations. However, he has never been charged with anything, and as such must enjoy the presumption of innocence we are sometimes too quick to dispense with.
The fact that he is being “forced” on to the Cabinet should be judged the same way one would judge a cat being forced to swallow a pill. The cat might not like it, but it’s got to be done. The Mbeki Cabinet has stalled in mid-air, lost touch with the population and (at best) become ineffectual. What Motlanthe represents is the rise of the post-Mbeki era, and as such he will be watched closely.
Speaking for myself, I don’t know much about him. But I have had the opportunity to sit 10m away from him and look into his eyes; to hear him honestly admit problems with corruption in the party, speak about the need to refocus on education and emphasise the importance of staying in touch with the rank-and-file members that made the ANC what it is. And he did so in a way that just felt good, in a way that Mbeki’s icy, disconnected and frequently awful speeches haven’t done for a long time.
In order to believe this is good news, you have to have a few basic ingredients in place. First, you have to believe that South Africa is fundamentally OK, despite its many problems. That loses a whole chunk of people right there. Second, you have to believe that the ANC is capable of reversing out of the ridiculous course it has taken on numerous issues in the past year or two under Mbeki’s leadership. Third, that even if Zuma becomes president, he will rely on Motlanthe to do much of the heavy lifting. And lastly, that Motlanthe himself, despite being a black man, is not in fact a corrupt criminal scumbag who only went into politics to line his own pockets.
If you’re still with me, then either you’re an ANC supporter or you’re one of the few who can see through the mire of Sunday-paper hysteria and Talk Radio 702 noise and feel the hope of some inspiring leadership on the horizon. Me, I had a much better sleep last night after hearing the news.